Politics & Policy

After the GOP Darkness, the Dawn of Conservative Opportunity

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In 1650, English theologian and historian Thomas Fuller wrote a religious travelogue, A Pisgah-Sight of Palestine and the Confines Thereof, in which he explained, “It is always darkest before the Day dawneth.” While Americans might be familiar with the proverb as solace for the suffering, perhaps it’s time for conservatives to embrace the optimism it elicits as we consider our post-Trump path.

Indeed, these days are grim. We have watched in bewilderment and disgust as a man who has experienced no earnest conversion to our cause adulterates our time-tested philosophy to satiate his own megalomania and lust for power.

We have lamented the social decay that catapulted Donald Trump’s ascent, as we witness millions of our fellow Americans pledge fealty to a man who makes lofty guarantees that will inevitably disappoint them, manipulates them further into victimhood, and promises to strip them of their rights. We are dismayed that so many people have blamed their unhappiness on other people’s “unfairness,” instead of sensing joy in the potential of their own lives.

Even before the reality television star clenched the GOP nomination, plenty of people were already casting blame for his meteoric rise. Some whined about the failures of Republican leaders. Others blamed unrealistic expectations set by paid pundits, scam PACs, and self-absorbed lawmakers who constantly stood in the way of legitimate conservative successes. Still others proclaimed that the media, ever eager to portray the GOP as prone to demagoguery, created this monster.

Thousands of Donald Trumps have existed, across every civilization and era, and there will be thousands more.

Conservatives argue that we must understand history, even as we live it now, so as not to repeat it. But the truth is that thousands of Donald Trumps have existed, across every civilization and era, and even after the tanned tycoon fades from the public stage he has dominated with bombast, there will be thousands more. There have always been ill-intentioned charlatans who prey on good intentions or angry resentments, and there always will be.

Unfortunately, those who could thwart the danger of such a movement and such a leader are sometimes unprepared to do so. Perhaps they do not realize the gravity of the prospect, or perhaps they misunderstand the nature of the challenges they face. Either way, when a Donald Trump comes around, he might get away with it.

But just for a little while. Darkness can prevail for only so long. As the old proverb reminds us, at the moment when the night is at its darkest, the light will emerge. For Republicans, that dawn is opportunity conservatism.

In principle, it is a philosophy that limits government in order to free people. It promotes equality of opportunity, not of outcomes. It is a moral obligation to demonstrate to the poor and the disadvantaged that their lives have meaning, and that in this country, they can realize their dreams. It is a commitment to listen to the needs of people while enthusiastically evangelizing for the conservative cause. It is a belief that America is innately good and our citizenry inherently gifted, that our institutions remain strong and our best days lie ahead.

In policy, opportunity conservatism means tax reform, reducing regulations, mandating educational justice, expanding domestic energy production, boosting economic growth, creating safer communities, scaling back the size of government, nurturing economic mobility, and promoting retirement security.

In practice, opportunity conservatism means lowering taxes, curtailing government spending, demanding school choice, fostering the conditions for job creation and higher wages, encouraging cheaper energy costs, replacing Obamacare with actual health-care choices, returning greater control and influence to communities and localities, empowering churches and nonprofits to address the needs of those they serve.

In leadership, opportunity conservatism is evident in the energy, optimism, and humility of people such as Speaker Paul Ryan; Senators Ben Sasse, Marco Rubio, and Mike Lee, Governors Nikki Haley and Susana Martinez; Representative Mia Love; and so many others, from federal lawmakers to state legislators. These are leaders who have proven time and time again that the new face of the GOP is positive, aspirational, and focused on solutions. One such powerful example is Comeback, an Opportunity Lives documentary showcasing Speaker Paul Ryan’s cross-country tour to learn firsthand how leaders of neighborhoods, churches, and nonprofit organizations are tackling the social challenges of poverty, domestic violence, drug abuse, prostitution, the growth of gangs, and joblessness. 

The good news is that conservatism will be around a lot longer than Donald Trump.

Many thoughtful conservatives are planning for a post-Trump future that aims to create a movement built to last — and better yet, to grow. We wish to expand our reach so that every American, no matter where he was raised, considers our approach to leadership.

But opportunity conservatism requires work. We can’t give up on the Senate and House candidates who need our help to maintain and win seats in Congress. They don’t deserve to be stuck with Donald Trump as their party’s standard-bearer, and we won’t force them into that dead end.

We also must enthusiastically support opportunity conservatism when our leaders act upon it. While the media might be distracted with the Donald Trump sideshow, those of us who believe in this philosophy must be committed to doing our part to celebrating its successes.  

There will be some who purport to be on our side but, just like the other barnyard animals in the Little Red Hen, won’t help bake the proverbial bread. Our voices must be louder and more persuasive than their perpetual discontent, and we must not forget who stood by angrily and lazily while we toiled.

Opportunity conservatism is the future of the GOP. In fact, it must be. We have seen now that populism inspired by self-pity and despair does nothing to unite conservatives or better our country.

Instead of gloomily accepting the darkness, eagerly usher in the dawn.

— Ellen Carmichael is president of The Lafayette Company, a political-consulting firm based in Washington, D.C. She has served as a senior communications adviser for a Republican presidential campaign, members of Congress, and statewide elected officials. Follow her on Twitter @ellencarmichael.